What is Social Entrepreneurship?

Room for Thought is a casual space for Empower Fellows and interested commenters to opine on issues within the field of social entrepreneurship, and to further debate towards a better understanding of the role of the social entrepreneur in society.

Round I: What is Social Entrepreneurship?

Cody Valdes – Sisi ni Amani

Social entrepreneurship is endemic in informal contexts. Little of the economic movement that occurs in a slum, or a market, is superfluous economic activity. There are no Botox screening centres, no retailers of brand-inflated handbags, and no professionals in the business of interior designing to speak of. These sub-zones of society should not be understood as poverty-driven caricatures of asceticism. Nevertheless, they are economies that have the endemic characteristic of producing value, from the Nairobi “Mamas” cooking the beans that feed young male day-labourers, to the self-taught carpenters and metal welders that weld desks and chairs for classrooms. Innovation in informal contexts is thus propelled by the necessities of building a society and the many means of addressing them; and yet, the imaginative capacity of informal contexts is limited by available tools, norms, and modes of thinking that circulate within an economy. As an outsider, the bar is thus raised to a height that must, by all moral and purposive demands, exceed the creativity of informality’s existing entrepreneurship. One must approach old problems in informal contexts not by displacing existing transactions with new ones that are merely better funded and compellingly foreign, but by bringing new ideas and tools to bear upon old problems, leveraging technological fluencies and the fresh creativity of outside perspective, to engender social innovations.


Anne Wolfe – Fundación Paraguaya

Social entrepreneurship, for Fundación Paraguaya, was about being at the front of their field, about constantly innovating. They spoke of constant monitoring and evaluation, which was designed to provide them with data to identify problem areas and improve their program. However, when put into action, there seemed to be a lack of understanding about what areas of their program they should be monitoring and evaluating. They focused mostly on quantitative data, such as increase in income, rather than asking the women, staff and other clients what they thought of the program. Social entrepreneurship is not standing still, it is about constantly striving to move forward, to find new links between social and economic goals, to look for ways to merge business and social improvement. Basically, it’s trying to find the middle ground between financial profit and social benefit.


Manas Baba – BUILD India

In general, I define social entrepreneurship to be a business or venture aiming to enact social change and measuring its success by the social value generated. For BUILD’s income generation project in Thottiyapatti, we were aiming to introduce a supplemental, secure source of income in a place accustomed to unstable daily-wage agricultural labor. It’s hard to tell if the goal or measurement of this project qualifies for social entrepreneurship. I tend to think that it doesn’t: in the end, the goal is for Thottiyapattians to have more money. Ideally, this money would be used for reinvestment into the community and bettering health and education for families, but we can’t dictate how people will spend this money. But in the end, if people severely lacked access to income opportunities, does the mere fact of having it qualify as social value in itself?

An additional complication in this project is defining BUILD’s role and Thottiapatti’s role. In some ways, BUILD could be considered social entrepreneurs in trying to tackle this income issue and create economic empowerment. However, in the end, we want the business to belong entirely to Thottiyapatti, with us out of the picture. We envision them managing a business just like any other person would: does their rural background turn this seemingly non-social objective into a social one because of economic empowerment?

A final complication for me in understanding social entrepreneurship comes from the different organizations we met over the summer. Take SELCO for example: they are a self-proclaimed social enterprise whose mission is to enhance livelihoods through sustainable energy solutions. Their model is for-profit and involves providing villagers a service. On the other hand, BUILD’s gains are not-for-profit and are derived from experiential learning, and instead of Thottiyapatti being a customer, we want them to be the producer of some sort of good or service.

Overall, I think the core of my struggle in defining social entrepreneurship lies with understanding what “social” exactly is and how the roles of the actors involved shape this definition.


Allie Wollum – BUILD India

Right now we are in the process of defining what social entrepreneurship means to BUILD: India in the context of Thottiapatti. We felt tension between the goals of income generation and addressing a social problem. We have begun to realize that within social enterprise is room for both. By looking at both of these issues as intertwined, we begin to see where social entrepreneurship differs from strictly business entrepreneurship.  As a concept, social entrepreneurship is a way to innovatively look at social issues and find new ways to solve them. For us, looking at the gendered structure of social life in Thottiyapatti has highlighted the need to look at issues in a new way; the need for supplemental income in a way that empowers women to think about their role in the larger social and political context.


Meagan Maher – Collaborative Transitions Africa

I had an internship, but they didn’t have a definition for social entrepreneurship.  I worked with two different organizations.  The one the initiated the peace messages/multimedia project had a philosophy of finding out from the communities what they needed, including them in the brainstorming process, and then working together on the final project.  The organization that I was working with in the field had other projects going on as well and their overall philosophy was to work with the youth on initiatives that would improve economies on the local level, improve “sovereign efficiency”, and bring peace.  I don’t know if any of this is really helpful with a definition of social entrepreneurship, so I’ll take a stab at it myself.

To me, social entrepreneurship is any activity or business that initiates something new in order to work towards solving some problem; the end goal should be improving the world in a creative and effective way.


Erica Goldstein – Physicians for Human Rights

The philosophy at Physicans for Human Rights is to stop mass atrocities using the authority of health professionals. Social entrepreneurship is innovative in nature, approaching social problems using a business model.

I would not consider corporate responsibility and social entrepreneurship equivalent; however, businesses can be social enterprises if social or environmental responsibility is included in the mission statement.


Marla Spivack – Innovations for Poverty Action

The NGO I was working for did not define themselves as a social enterprise, but over the course of the summer I came to see a variety of ways in which they were a social enterprise.  IPA is a research NGO, they conduct randomized controlled trials of development programs.  In my empower application I wrote about how the specific research project I was working on, which was investigating youth financial literacy education and group savings accounts, was related to social entrepreneurship because it could inform financial access projects.  After working on the project for several weeks it felt as if I was doing much more computer coding, data management, and people management than research or development work.  I asked my supervisor, a young Middleberry Alumn who had also studied Economic Development in college how he felt about the work we were doing, and if he felt like we were contributing to development in Uganda. I was frustrated by the lack of impact I felt our project was having on beneficiaries.  The most immediate beneficiaries, he explained, were our employees not our research participants.  The data we were collecting would eventually turn into one or more papers about financial access and would join a larger body of research which might eventually affect funding and policy choices in the financial access sector. Our employees, on the other had were educated Ugandans whom we were providing with decent, meaningful jobs through which they were gaining transferable skills in a growing industry in Uganda. Good enumerators in our organization had room for upward mobility, becoming auditors, team leaders, and eventually field mangers, with increasing salaries and in the case of field managers benefits packages.  We trained them in new computer skills teaching them new excel shortcuts and how to code in STATA. This type of personel development may eventually decrease opportunities for ex-pat workers, especially at the intern level, in the organization. I do not think that our hiring or training practices means that IPA is a social enterprise, but I think this highlights the ways in which any NGO or private company can have a positive social impact not only through fulfilling its mission, but also through the way it operates, and the way it trains and empowers its local staff.


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